HOUSTON. — Houston -- The Brady Bill, requiring a seven-day wait before purchase of a handgun, is the first piece of significant gun-control legislation ever to reach the floor of Congress with a respectable chance of passage.
It is supported by better than nine out of ten Americans -- including, mirabile dictu, Ronald Reagan. Four out of five citizens support the further objectives of registering all handguns and requiring a license for those packing them outside their homes or businesses. Less than half the population -- 43 percent -- wants a total ban on handguns.
Sorry, but the Brady Bill won't do a plugged nickel's worth of good. Its objective is not to ban handguns, but to ''keep them out of the wrong hands,'' but there are scores of thousands of ''wrong hands'' in the nation, and they don't buy their handguns through legitimate retail outlets.
Guns change hands incessantly, and ''wrong hands'' acquire them on the street, often through unregistered, illegal dealers. The vast horde of ''wrong hands'' who want handguns for criminal activity -- the drug trade, street gangs, robbers, muggers and what have you, do not walk into an established retail outlet, fill out a form and wait a week. They simply dip into the incredible inundation of handguns in which this nation is already drowning.
They could, in fact, probably register and wait out their week with impunity. They could acquire registrations, licenses, whatever. The waiting period is intended to give police forces time to check out the application and intervene to prevent the sale.
Consider. Who is to check out the applications -- ''the police?'' Every police force in the nation is already swamped and strangling in paperwork, with backlogs that defy description. Major cities have traffic ticket backlogs in five figures; it takes years to track down scofflaws, and then only the extreme cases are nabbed. And handgun applications are to be investigated in a week -- five working days, or four over holiday weekends? Don't be silly.
How are they to be checked? There is time at most for a cursory check of a couple of indices; is the name in local files as a current or past criminal? If not, will wider indices -- state or national -- be checked? The address -- is it valid; how is it to be checked? (And remember, those with criminal records or on wanted lists are hardly likely to be filling out such forms truthfully.) Just how much time can a police force give to each application? The answer is virtually none; properly ''checking'' one application could consume several days.
Suppose an applicant's name pops up on some sort of index. What then? Police can't prevent handgun purchases by individuals unless legislation exists banning possession of a handgun for a specific category. There are thousands of state and local laws devoted to this -- all different.
May a felon who has served his sentence and been restored to society purchase a gun? Certainly -- unless local law forbids it. Mental records? A quagmire. How about people the police know perfectly well are engaged in criminal activity, but who as yet have no records? Preventing a citizen with a clean record from buying a handgun on mere ''suspicion'' is likely to have a lively time in the courts.
Joe Doaks, solid citizen, runs clean, waits a week, picks up his piece -- and immediately gives it to Joe Smokes, with a record as long as your arm. Neither Doaks nor Smokes may have broken the law; they merely bypassed it.
Or, six months later, Doaks himself makes a mid-career change to mugging, and guns someone down. The media, and the public, will land on the hapless police, who have quite enough on their plates as it is, thank you.
Or visit a gun show, with several hundred booths manned by legal dealers (most from out of state) and thousands of customers milling about. The bulk of the wares qualify as ''antiques,'' or ''collectors items'' -- militaria and the like. How does one handle applications, checks, waiting periods, registrations, licenses?
It will take a decade and more to reduce the handgun inundation (with which this nation alone on earth is afflicted) to a modest puddle, and then only when that 43 percent favoring a total ban has risen to 51 percent, the operative number in a democracy.
The bill required would allow hand-guns to be registered to security personnel and business premises; those fondly dreaming of ''protecting their homes'' can use rifles or shotguns -- home handguns have killed more children who found them lying around than intruders. Anyone else found with a handgun (or an automatic weapon) could then be picked up and booked on the spot. Give an immediate no-bail 30-day jail term for ''possession'' alone -- courts and prisons are already overcrowded. By all means special provisions for collectors, even isolated rural homesteads. (But handgun target shooting and handgun hunting will have to go.)
No conceivable form of paperwork will work -- waiting periods, licenses, registrations are equally useless. Only a total ban will, over much time, work.
=1 Donald R. Morris is a retired naval officer.